Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When a president fails to lead

With this president, it was clear that we were never going to have some grand deal to reduce the federal debt. He is just not interested. This became especially clear from his response to his own deficit-reducing commission. They worked hard and in a bipartisan manner and came up with a viable plan that both Republicans and Democrats had signed on to. And he did....absolutely nothing with it. Even the Democratic leader of the commission was surprised at the President's inaction. First they acknowledge the dreadful situation that we're in because of the mandatory spending that we're committed to be paying. Here is Erskine Bowles on the crisis we're facing.
The economics is very clear. The politics, very difficult. I'll give you one little simple arithmetic example. If you take 100% of the revenue that came into the country last year, every single dime of it was consumed by our mandatory spending and interest on the debt. Mandatory spending in English is basically the entitlement programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. That means every single dollar we spent last year on these two wars, on national defense, homeland security, education, infrastructure, high value-added research—every single dollar was borrowed, and half of it was borrowed from foreign countries.

That's a formula for failure in anybody's book.

And this is not a problem that we can solely grow our way out of. You could have double-digit growth for decades and not solve this problem. It's not a problem that we can solely tax our way out of. And we can't simply cut our way out of it.
So they devised a plan to cut spending. It also increased revenue. It was a serious, bipartisan proposal. It was the President's own commission. But he isn't interested in solutions, but in demagoguing the issue to ride to reelection so he can continue to increase the size of government and the level of spending. Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff for Bill Clinton was flabbergasted at the lack of support or response from Obama.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Your presidential commission delivered your report in December. How surprised were you that your commission gave the president tremendous coverage to do something, and it wasn't even mentioned in the State of the Union?

MR. BOWLES: If you think you were surprised, you should have looked at us. I negotiated the budget for President Clinton. And every investment banker will tell you the key to success is knowing your client and defining success up front. So, I knew what success was on his part, and I could go in there and negotiate the deal.

I did not know President Obama, and neither did Alan. So, we spent a tremendous amount of time with him and his economic team up front defining success. And we negotiated a deal that got a majority of Republicans to vote for it, so he had plenty of cover on the other side. It also exceeded every single one of the goals that he had given us.

I fully expected them to grab hold of this. If it had been President Clinton, he would have said, "God, I created this, this is wonderful. It was all my idea."

So we were really surprised. My belief is that most of the members of the economic team strongly supported it. Like every White House, there's a small cabal of people that surround the president that he trusts and works with, and I believe it was those Chicago guys, the political team that convinced him that it would be smarter for him to wait and let Paul Ryan go first, and then he would look like the sensible guy in the game.

We then expected, before the State of the Union, that when he did the stimulus, that that would be a great time to say not only, look, we're going to do this to get the economy moving forward, but we have to do it within the context of long-term fiscal reform and responsibility. And he didn't.

If you remember the State of the Union, he talked about the need for this country to invest in education and infrastructure and high-value-added research to be able to compete in a knowledge-based global economy. And he's right about that. But he left off a part, that we have to do it in a fiscally responsible way. We live in a world of limited resources, and limited resources mean choices and priorities.

MR. SIMPSON: The terrible irony is the mandatory programs are eating a hole through those programs. They are on automatic pilot. They can't be stopped. Every day that they get deeper in their train wreck, it takes it out of the things that President Obama's speaking of. Those things will disappear. They will be squeezed out.
Obama doesn't care. He just doesn't care. That is why he scheduled an Asian trip so he could be out of town as the super committee spluttered to its ignominious end. He never cared whether they succeeded or not. He never got involved and tried to lead the congressional leaders to finding a solution. Jennifer Rubin links to this Robert Samuelson column with its sorry verdict on our AWOL president. Samuelson cuts through the Democratic foggery to point out that the Republicans on the committee came through with a serious revenue increase proposal.
Contrary to much press coverage, the committee’s Republicans opened the door to compromise by abandoning — as they should have — opposition to tax increases. Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania proposed a tax “reform” that would raise income taxes by $250 billion over a decade. First, he would impose across-the-board reductions of most itemized deductions and use the resulting revenue gains to cut all tax rates. Next, he would adjust the rates for the top two brackets so that they’d be high enough to produce the $250 billion. All the tax increase would fall on people in the top brackets.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin called Toomey’s proposal a “breakthrough.” With good reason: It came from a “no new taxes, over my dead body” Republican who had signed Grover Norquist’s pledge against any tax increases. But the details of Toomey’s plan are murky, and many Democrats claim that it would cut taxes for the rich. Democrats also didn’t respond with an equal concession: a willingness to deal with Social Security and Medicare.
That's where the cuts have to come. The mandatory spending is eating up all our spending. If we don't cut entitlements, we will be lost. That's the whole ball game. But Obama just doesn't care. He refuses to talk about this cataclysmic fiscal crisis that we've promised ourselves.
Only President Obama can start such a debate. He has the bully pulpit, but he hasn’t used it. Here’s an exchange between ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper and the president, at a July 15 news conference, that captures Obama’s calculated obscurity.

Tapper: “In the interest of transparency, leadership and also showing the American people that you have been negotiating (with Republicans) in good faith, can you tell us one structural reform that you are willing to make to one of these entitlement programs that would have a major effect on the deficit? Would you be willing to raise the retirement age? Would you be willing to means test Social Security or Medicare?”

Obama: “We’ve said that we are willing to look at all these approaches. I’ve laid out some criteria in terms of what would be acceptable. So, for example, I’ve said very clearly that we should make sure that current beneficiaries as much as possible are not affected. But we should look at what can we do in the out-years, so that over time some of these programs are more sustainable. I’ve said that means testing on Medicare, meaning people like myself, if — I’m going to be turning 50 in a week. So I’m starting to think a little bit more about Medicare eligibility. (Laughter.) Yes, I’m going to get my AARP card soon — and the discounts. But you can envision a situation where for somebody in my position, me having to pay a little bit more on premiums or co-pays or things like that would be appropriate.”

Noncommittal gibberish. There is no leadership from the nation’s “leader.” Space precludes running all his rambling response; the excerpt above was about half. Tapper followed up.

Tapper: “And the retirement age?”

Obama: “I’m not going to get into specifics.”

Well, there you have it. The president won’t talk specifics, but government consists of specifics. The reason we cannot have a large budget deal is that Americans haven’t been prepared for one. The president hasn’t educated them, and so they can’t support what they don’t understand. Left or right, there are no comfortable positions. No one relishes curbing Social Security or Medicare benefits. But without changes, taxes will go way up, the rest of government will shrink dramatically or huge deficits will persist.
This is why we will continue to be a downgraded nation - we have a president who refuses to acknowledge the fiscal situation we're in and refuses to lead. He just buried us in a deeper hole with Obamacare. His only solution is massive increases in taxes - but we can't get all the money we need from taxes on the wealthy. There just isn't enough money there. So we'll all have to pay. And then you can say good-by to economic growth and decreases in unemployment. That is the Obama vision for our country. It is a catastrophe that we have this man as our president when what we need is a true leader who approaches our fiscal reality with a seriousness and a sincere desire to reach a decision.

Just imagine an alternate universe in which Obama had actually wanted to address our fiscal catastrophe. He might have embraced the Bowles-Simpson commission solution and then spent the past year trying to enact that. He could have worked with Paul Ryan. He could have embraced the deal that John Boehner put on the table during the summer negotiations over the debt ceiling. Instead, at every juncture, he chose the opposite path away from leading to a bipartisan solution and resorted to partisan shots pretending that the Republicans refused to negotiate. That is not true, but what do the facts matter when there is demagoguing to be done?

Jennifer Rubin summarizes his pitch to voters:
And you see it now in the chorus of liberal pundits echoing the White House talking points. It’s the Republicans’ fault! The GOP only defends the rich. This is frankly lame, considering the president in three years hasn’t offered his own plan. And where was Obama in the first two years when the Democrats controlled everything?

The president will have virtually nothing to run on in 2012. ObamaCare may be ruled unconstitutional, and in any event, it isn’t popular. He hasn’t reformed the tax code or entitlements. The economy is still limping and unemployment will remain high for the foreseeable future. His entire argument to voters? The GOP is mean. I may have done nothing but the Republican nominee is worse. It is the most cynical approach to politics possible, one which will and should depress all those idealistic young (and old) voters who thought Obama would be better than all the other pols. In fact, he’s worse.
All the GOP need is someone who can make this argument. Obama has no answer besides finger-pointing even as he calls on Washington to have done with the games and finger-pointing. As always, he projects his own approach to politics onto his opponents. It might have worked when he was a blank slate on which people could write their own aspirations for Hope and Change. He's not a tabula rasa anymore. He's just an AWOL president whose only pledge to the American people is more of the same behavior that has increased our fiscal problems and stalled our economy. He is the very antithesis of a leader.